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A Knock on Rock Movies : How 'Great Balls of Fire,' the latest failed rock bio, reduces Jerry Lee Lewis to Roger Rabbit

July 09, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

After 30 years of rock 'n' roll movies, is it too much to ask Hollywood to make a biography that reaches for insight rather than nostalgia; a film with enough imagination and heart to add to a performer's artistic legacy rather than belittle it?

The current "Great Balls of Fire," ironically, ends just where the real drama in Jerry Lee Leiws' life began: the time in 1959 when the proud hellcat--accustomed to being paid thousands of dollars a night in the nation's top ballrooms and theaters--was forced to settle for $100 a show in backwoods Southern honky-tonks.

Lewis, a man of relentless determination and ego, eventually returned to bigger paydays, scoring hits in the country field in the late '60s and then benefiting from the '50s rock revival in the '70s and '80s. He remains an arresting live performer who, far more than Chuck Berry or Fats Domino, represents the purest active taste of the original rock 'n' roll spontaneity and independence.

But you'd never know that from the movie.

"Great Balls of Fire" could have been the classic film biography.

Dennis Quaid was an inspired choice to play Jerry Lee, the piano-pumping Louisiana wild man who was so notorious during rock's early days that he made anxious parents think Elvis Presley wasn't so bad after all. Elvis may have shaken his hips when he sang, but he had manners when he was around adults and he knew the importance of discretion.

Jerry Lee bowed to no man and he didn't see anything wrong in telling the world about his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown.

In Winona Ryder (she's 17), director Jim McBride also had an actress who reflects marvelously the conflicting emotions that must have been going through 13-year-old Myra Gale when Jerry Lee suddenly reached out to her: the urges that accompany sexual awakening, the intoxication of being close to somebody so famous, and the underlying fear that Jerry Lee could someday go over the edge. And the singer does turn suddenly violent in a scene after his downfall.

With all these elements in place, however, McBride fails badly. Rather than explore Lewis' character, McBride, who co-wrote the script with Jack Baran, ends up simply satirizing the argyle innocence and daffy exuberance of the '50s.

By concentrating on the nostalgia of the '50s rather than the complexities of Lewis, McBride leaves us with a film as colorful, slick and soulless as the new breed of neighborhood '50s diners. There are hints of Lewis' dark, self-destructive streak and his dirt-poor origins in "Great Balls of Fire," but it is all kept far in the shadows.

With no depth of story or character to support him, Quaid--sadly--ends up appearing hammy and even goofy, whether assaulting the piano, strutting around the house or driving through town in his shiny new convertible.

"Great Balls of Fire" is the toon of rock movies, with Jerry Lee Lewis reduced on screen to Roger Rabbit.

Jerry Lee Lewis may be a lot of things, but he's not a simple cartoon.

No one in rock--even youngsters half his age--has had a bigger reputation for hard living and hard drinking. Lewis was on the road as much as 250 nights a year for two decades--and it almost killed him. It was touch and go in 1981, doctors said, as they worked to repair a tear in Lewis' stomach lining.

Tragedy, meanwhile, seemed to stalk Lewis at every turn. One of his sons died in a swimming pool, another died in a jeep accident. His fifth wife, Shawn, died of a drug overdose in 1983 under suspicious circumstances. "20/20" and Rolling Stone magazine both raised questions about Lewis' possible implication in the death.

In an interview just weeks after the delicate stomach operation in 1981, Lewis sat backstage at a Longview, Tex. ballroom and said, "I'll tell

you what it was--all those years of going, going, going. I think my stomach just finally wore out. I've got to start taking better care of myself."

With a showman's timing, Lewis flashed a wide grin and added, "Now where's that whiskey?"

Rock 'n' roll movies in the '50s at least had the rock stars themselves in front of the camera. They were mostly quick exploitation films, offering fans--in the days when rock concerts were still rarities--a chance to see a parade of their favorites do their hits. The plots were no more imaginative than the titles of the film: "Don't Knock the Rock," "Rock, Rock, Rock" and "Go, Johnny, Go."

In "Don't Knock the Rock," a riot breaks out at a rock dance and city fathers blame the music, but disc jockey Alan Freed finally convinces everyone that rock is really a healthy outlet. All this goes on between the real action and lure of the film: numbers by rock stars Bill Haley and Little Richard.

In "Shake, Rattle and Rock," a citizens' group again wants the ban rock, but another disc jockey (this time played by Touch Connors) again saves the day. The real lure: the songs by Fats Domino and Joe Turner.

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